By Mark Kurlansky
March 9, 2008
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
Simon & Schuster: 576 pp., $30
Not long ago, because there is no winter baseball in this country, I was channel surfing in search of amusement and ended up watching a debate of Republican presidential candidates. Sen. John McCain was attacking Rep. Ron Paul for opposing the Iraq war. He called Paul an “isolationist” and said it was that kind of thinking that had caused World War II. How old, I asked myself, is John McCain, that he is keeping alive this ancient World War II canard? Is it going to pass down to subsequent generations? All wars have to be sold, but World War II, within the memory of the pointless carnage that then became known as World War I, was a particularly hard sell. Roosevelt and Churchill did it well, and their lies have been with us ever since.
Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke” is a meticulously researched and well-constructed book demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history. According to the myth, British and American statesmen naively thought they could reason with such brutal fascists as Germany’s Hitler and Japan’s Tojo. Faced with this weakness, Hitler and Tojo tried to take over the world, and the United States and Britain were forced to use military might to stop them.
Because Baker is primarily a novelist, it might be expected that, having taken on this weighty subject, he would write about it with great flare and drama. Readers may initially be disappointed, yet one of this book’s great strengths is that it avoids flourishes in favor of the kind of lean prose employed by journalists. “Human Smoke” is a series of well-written, brilliantly ordered snapshots, the length of news dispatches. Baker states that he wanted to raise these questions about World War II: “Was it a ‘good war’? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?” His very effective style is to offer the facts and leave readers to draw their own conclusions.
The facts are powerful. Baker shows, step by step, how an alliance dominated by leaders who were bigoted, far more opposed to communism than to fascism, obsessed with arms sales and itching for a fight coerced the world into war.
Anti-Semitism was rife among the Allies. Of Franklin Roosevelt, Baker notes that in 1922, when he was a New York attorney, he “noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard” and used his influence to establish a Jewish quota there. For years he obstructed help for European Jewry, and as late as 1939 he discouraged passage of the Wagner-Rogers bill, an attempt by Congress to save Jewish children. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said in 1939 of German treatment of Jews that “no doubt Jews aren’t a lovable people. I don’t care about them myself.” Once the war began, Winston Churchill wanted to imprison German Jewish refugees because they were Germans. What a comfort such leadership must have been to the Nazis, who, according to the New York Times of Dec. 3, 1931, were trying to figure out a way to rid Germany of Jews without “arousing foreign opinion.”
Churchill is a dominant figure in “Human Smoke,” depicted as a bloodthirsty warmonger who, in 1922, was still bemoaning the fact that World War I hadn’t lasted a little longer so that Britain could have had its air force in place to bomb Berlin and “the heart of Germany.” But no, he whined, it had to stop, “owing to our having run short of Germans and enemies.”
Churchill was not driven by anti-fascism. In his 1937 book “Great Contemporaries,” he described Hitler as “a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner.” The same book savagely attacked Leon Trotsky. (What was wrong with Trotsky? “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.”) Churchill repeatedly praised Mussolini for his “gentle and simple bearing.” In 1927, he told a Roman audience, “If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Churchill considered fascism “a necessary antidote to the Russian virus,” Baker writes. In 1938, he remarked to the press that if England were ever defeated in war, he hoped “we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among nations.”
As Baker’s book makes clear, between the two World Wars communism, not fascism, was the enemy. David Lloyd George, who had been Britain’s prime minister during World War I, cautioned in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, that if the Allies managed to overthrow Nazism, “what would take its place? Extreme communism. Surely that cannot be our objective.” But even more than the communists, Churchill’s enemy No. 1 in the 1920s and early ’30s was Mohandas Gandhi and his doctrine of nonviolence, which Churchill warned “will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed.”
In the 1930s, U.S. industry was free to sell the Germans and the Japanese whatever they’d buy, including weapons. Not to lose out, the British and French sold tanks and bombers to Hitler. Calls by Joseph Tenenbaum of the American Jewish Congress to boycott Germany were ignored. There was no attempt to contain, isolate, hinder or overthrow Hitler — not because of naiveté but because of commerce. It was the Depression. There were Germans trying to overthrow Hitler, but the U.S. and Britain and their industries were obstructing that effort.
Baker shows that the Japanese, as early as 1934, were complaining that Roosevelt was deliberately provoking them. In January 1941, Japan protested the U.S. military buildup in Hawaii. Joseph Grew, our ambassador to Japan, reported rumors that the Japanese response would be a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet according to World War II mythology, America was blissfully sleeping, unprepared for war, when caught by surprise by the dastardly “sneak attack.” (Isn’t it curious that Asians carry out “sneak attacks,” whereas Westerners launch “preemptive strikes”?) A year earlier, Baker shows, Roosevelt began planning the bombing of Japan — which had invaded China, but with which we were not at war — from Chinese air bases with American planes and, when necessary, American pilots. Pearl Harbor was a purely military target, but Roosevelt wanted to bomb Japanese cities with incendiary bombs; he’d been assured that their cities would burn fast, being made largely of wood and paper.
Roosevelt evinced no desire to negotiate. In fact, Baker writes, in October he “began leaking the news of his new war plan,” with $100 billion earmarked for airplanes alone. Grew again warned Roosevelt that he was pushing Japan toward armed conflict with the United States, but the president continued his war preparations. Finally, the night before the Japanese attack, Roosevelt sent a message to Emperor Hirohito calling for talks. He read it to the Chinese ambassador, remarking that he thought the message would “be fine for the record.”
People are going to get really angry at Baker for criticizing their favorite war. But he hasn’t fashioned his tale from gossip. It is documented, with copious notes and attributions. The grace of these well-ordered snapshots is that there is no diatribe; you are left to put things together yourself. Read “Human Smoke.” It may be one of the most important books you will ever read. It could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war — and that wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks but by the promoters of warfare. *
Mark Kurlansky is a journalist and the author, most recently, of “Nonviolence: 25 Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea.”